The Obama administration continues to have trouble filling positions because of the ironclad rules it has installed to keep lobbyists from holding positions where they have authority over issues on which they once lobbied. According to the New York Times, the latest casualty is Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. Malinowski is barred from holding a human rights post in the administration because he lobbied for human rights.  

In defending these stances, administration officials insist they are not going to make “value judgments” or that if they allow one lobbyist in the door, they’ll have to let them all in. But appointing officials is precisely a matter of making value judgments, and in this case, the administration’s judgments are being hampered by a self-imposed orthodoxy based on the uncritical use of the term “lobbyist.” The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would say they are being “bewitched by language.”

What the Obama people fail to understand is the history of the term and of the organizations and individuals to which it has been applied. Here’s a simple explanation. Others can fill in the details. One of the virtues of political democracy is that it is supposed to provide political equality: in voting for representatives, each person’s vote is as important as the other’s. And historically, the promise of democracy was that it would provide power to the factory worker, clerk  and farmer as against the great merchant, banker, or industrialist.

But the economically powerful found ways to undermine public power as exercised through the vote. One way was, of course, campaign contributions, and another by lobbying. The great boom periods of American business lobbying are the 1870s (immortalized in Mark Twain and Samuel Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age), the 1920s, and immediate post-World War II years, and of course, the 1970s through the present.

Each of these periods came immediately after periods of popular upsurge and democratic reform: Civil War and Reconstruction; the Progressive Era and World War I; the New Deal and World War II; and the Sixties. Lobbying after these periods of reform was meant to undermine, counteract, neutralize rather than enhance popular democracy. I described some of this history in my book, The Paradox of American Democracy.

But what about the public interest lobby? It was largely an invention of a single person, Ralph Nader, with an assist, perhaps, from John Gardner of Common Cause. Public interest lobbies began in the Sixties, particularly in the wake of Nader’s battle with General Motors over auto safety. They were meant to counter the rise and power of the business lobby – to reinforce and strengthen democracy. That is the genesis of the lobbies for environmental protection, consumer rights, worker safety, and so on. Generally, they have been staffed by idealistic people willing to work for far less than they could command in the private sector. They are the kind of people that the Obama administration should be interested in recruiting.

What should the Obama administration have done or be doing about lobbying? They should pick people whom they believe are qualified to carry out their policies, and are fully committed to doing so. If a person lobbied for an organization or a company that advocated policies counter to those that the administration favors – say, if a person lobbied for oil or car companies opposed to carbon emission restrictions – then that’s a prime facie reason for questioning his or her qualifications, but it should not be disqualifying in and of itself – if there are other strong reasons suggesting that this person is right for the job. Think of Franklin Roosevelt’s appointment of Joe Kennedy as the head of Securities and Exchange Commission.

But the case of someone like Tom Malinowski? Leaving aside the question of his skills or collegiality – the simple fact of his having lobbied on behalf of a public interest organization for policies that the administration supports should be plus not a minus.  The administration needs to think about the history of democracy and not be bewitched by the label of lobbyist.

--John B. Judis